By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The first most have heard about Eastern Christian came through a Sports Illustrated story back in August of 2012.
Who knew then how important it would be to West Virginia football?
At that time it was little more than a developing dream, a school unlike any other. It had been founded just six months previously, according to Sports Illustrated, had only 54 students at the time in grades six through 12, 46 of them were boys and 46 of those boys were on the football team.
Two of those 46 were Wendell Smallwood and Daikill Shorts, running back and slot receiver for the Mountaineers.
You might now be beginning to understand what caught SI’s attention.
And Dana Holgorsen’s.
The founder and funder of the school was David Sills IV. The quarterback of that first team was David Sills V, but that really isn’t part of this story.
Things were primitive that first season, the senior seasons for Smallwood and Shorts.
“Eastern Christian has no football facility, either, so the team lifts weights at the Elkton YMCA and practices on an adjacent, pebble-pocked field without yard lines between the goal posts. The field, bordered by a barn and a grain silo, appears to be an abandoned farm,” wrote Sports Illustrated.
“The final preseason practice was set for the Y two days before the opener, but a summer camp needed the space, so Eastern Christian moved to a park across the nearby Delaware border. It, too, did not have yard lines.”
School wasn’t much different with online classes, actually conducted through a different school – National Connections Academy – which had 45,000 students across the country and was accredited by the NCAA.
“It is much harder than public school,” Smallwood recalls. “At first we were scrambling around, but then they set up a nice system and we got used to it.”
But this was about football.
They had all been together, coaches and players, at Red Lion Christian Academy in Delaware.
Sills had built it from nothing into a power. A prolific developer, he fell in love with Red Lion when his firm built a new gym and addition to the school. In 2002 the school asked Sills to help start a football program, and over the next decade he assumed almost all the costs and after a winless first season hired Eric Day, an assistant at Delaware State, as coach.
Following another bad season, 1-7, strength coach Dwayne Thomas went to work with a program called FLASH that included tossing tractor tires, lifting PVC pipes filled with water and other unique exercises that must have worked because the team became a power.
Along the way the demographics at Red Lion changed dramatically, going from 2 percent African-American to more than 30 percent, many failing in public school, according to the SI article.
In a couple of years the team’s grade point average went from 1.9 to 3.2 and the football program improved along with it, becoming a national power.
That’s when politics entered the picture and there were a lot of accusations and the football team was barred from the playoffs and put on probation along with the school being sold, and things just weren’t the way Sills had envisioned them.
His solution was to take his football team and start his own school and program, the Honey Badgers of Eastern Christian.
To learn the details of what went on you’ll have to find the story on line, but what they did has worked and they have done a whole lot for kids who might not have gotten any chance.
“For us, it was a great experience,” Shorts said. “The coaches, they treated everyone like a family and always had our backs. They never gave up on us.”
Shorts had no doubt in his mind that he would follow Sills to Eastern Christian.
“I’m close with him and his family,” he said. “The school, it created a brotherhood. We all talked to each other every day.”
“It was about our coaches wanting to keep us together for our senior year,” Smallwood said of the exodus. “We wanted to finish together.”
That first year was challenging. Due to the late start and other matters, only three games were played by the team.
“We were always training,” Smallwood said. “We never sat around. We always practiced like it was a game week, but I did miss game experience. And last year, it seemed very long and the coaches always get on us about it.”
“Because we played only three games our senior year I think I wore down toward the end last year because I wasn’t used to the 12-week grind. I’ve been working on the conditioning this year,” added Shorts.
Things have gotten better at Eastern Christian over the past couple of years.
“Even though we only had three games, this past season they had a full season and the season coming up they have a full schedule, so they have everything going,” Shorts said.
And Shorts and Underwood have opened a line to recruiting for the school, athlete Devon Russell from Eastern Christian visiting WVU last week.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.